Could Canada help Scotland on minimum pricing for alcohol?

<em>Picture: Willem van Bergen</em>
Picture: Willem van Bergen
Today the Scottish parliament’s health committee is due to start hearing evidence on the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill. We’ve been here before, of course, although the last time the health committee discussed the issue, circumstances were very different.

Then, the health secretary Nicola Sturgeon was trying very hard to build a consensus with other political parties so that she could get the measure passed as part of the wider legislation that was to become the Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Act 2010. As we know, this she failed to do.

This time, with a majority in the Scottish parliament, Ms Sturgeon probably doesn’t have to worry about making friends with the other parties. Presumably, however, she would still like to have cross-party backing – if nothing else, to give the likely new law more legitimacy and to make its passage through parliament a bit easier.

So far, that’s not looking too likely. Although the Lib Dems have changed their pre-election position and have withdrawn their opposition, Labour and the Tories remain intransigent.

I, for one, find this more than a little depressing. I really believe that Scotland needs this legislation and I fear that those who oppose it have (often understandable) vested interests, or that they are missing the wider point.

Scotland has an alcohol problem: nobody is denying this, not even those who oppose minimum pricing. The evidence is plentiful and compelling. I’m not going to relist all the frightening statistics about numbers of alcohol-related deaths, A&E visits and illness, nor the social and economic consequences – the devastating effects on communities and families – because I don’t think anyone disputes them. Suffice to say it’s a major, major problem.

Lots has already been done, and is being done, to try to alleviate it – for example, changes in licensing laws and crackdowns on promotions. These are good measures, but they don’t go far enough. We need to do more, and I would argue that minimum pricing would be a step in the right direction.

So why do I think this? Perhaps strangely, it’s not primarily because of the research that’s been done on the effects of pricing. The modelling done at Sheffield and elsewhere, showing that consumption would go down if prices went up, might be perfectly valid – but it’s not, for me, the most compelling reason.

Looking at the personal experiences of other jurisdictions is rather more persuasive. Tonight, the health committee members will sit in an evening session to hear evidence via video conference from Professor Timothy Stockwell of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Professor Stockwell has become a bit of a poster boy for those in favour of minimum pricing since his visit to Scotland last year. I attended one of the events at which he related the Canadian experience, where a form of minimum pricing has been in place for more than 20 years. Many different forms, as it happens, as each Canadian province applies its own rules.

Of course the circumstances aren’t identical – Canada has a state monopoly on alcohol, and I don’t hear anyone suggesting that for Scotland – but to say we can’t learn from the experience would be narrow-minded, to put it charitably.

From the Canadian example, it would appear that minimum pricing is most effective when it is index-linked and where it is accompanied by other policies such as incentives for low-alcohol products. But the effects of increased prices are clear. In British Columbia, where the government monopoly has set minimum prices for more than two decades, only spirit prices have been updated in line with the cost of living. Here, a 10 per cent increase in minimum price has shown decreases in ethanol consumption ranging from 1.5 per cent for beer to 8.9 per cent for wine, and 3.4 per cent for all drinks.

In Saskatchewan, however, which adjusts minimum prices to take inflation into account, and which prices high-strength alcohol more prohibitively, a 10 per cent increase led to an overall reduction of consumption of 5.2 per cent. In addition, a reduction of taxes on low-alcohol beer, combined with a reduced tax on low (up to 4 per cent) beers, mean that the latter now account for more than a third (37 per cent) of the beer market.

So far, so convincing – to me at least. But still, that’s not my main reason for believing that a legal minimum price is the right thing to do. In my view, it’s vital that the Scottish parliament passes this legislation because it sends out the right message. You can argue all you like that it will benefit only the supermarkets, who will be able to charge more for products, or that it will be difficult to police, or that it won’t actually help the health of all of those who are drinking dangerously or riskily. But the fact is that we need change at a cultural level, and legislation is one of the levers to help accomplish this.

Scotland as a whole needs rehab – and while legislators don’t take the opportunity to send out a clear message that drinking can be dangerous, then they are copping out.

This is why the alcohol industry – much of it at any rate – is against minimum pricing. What they don’t want is a clear governmental message that their product can be harmful – and who can blame them, as that’s how they make their money? And they have a good point in many cases – minimum pricing would have no actual effect on top-of-the-range malts, for example, because they already cost more per unit than even the wildest dreams of the pricing advocates. But the message that sends out – that alcohol can cause harm – could cause sales to take a hit.

What’s more, if Scotland pushes ahead with this, then she certainly won’t be alone. Other parts of the UK are already signalling pretty strongly that they are likely to follow suit, such as Northern Ireland (a fellow nation with an alcohol problem). Look at what happened with the ban on smoking in public places. Once a couple of jurisdictions introduced it, then much of the rest of the world followed like a set of dominoes.

Alcohol is different to smoking, of course – drinking in moderation can even confer health benefits, unlike the evil weed. So it’s understandable that the alcohol industry does not want to be (low) tarred with the same brush.

Our politicians don’t have the same excuse, however. I do them the justice of not assuming that they have opposed and continue to oppose the SNP’s plans simply on party political grounds. Their reasons for opposition might feel perfectly valid and justifiable to them.

But they are missing the bigger picture. As Professor Stockwell said at that meeting in September, the eyes of the world are on Scotland. Scotland has a long tradition of health and public health innovation – here’s hoping our politicians don’t lose sight of that.

Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day